The Z Factor

by Jennifer Miller on September 2, 2010

in Communication


Given that my company’s tag line is “master the people equation”, I’m always on the look-out for clever “equations” that tie to human dynamics. Of course, people are far too complex to be reduced to one “correct” answer like a math equation. Still, it’s fun when I discover one that seems to make sense if not in scientific way, at least in an intuitive one.

So it was with great delight that I read colleague Kevin Grossman’s Facebook post. Kevin is a Principal Partner for The Glowan Consulting Group and a fellow leadership development consultant.

“If A equals success, then the formula is: A = X+Y+Z, where X is work, Y is play, and Z is keep your mouth shut.” ~ Albert Einstein

A prominent 20th century scientist weighs in on the human condition, acknowledging both work and play in an equation.  The added bonus of knowing when to keep one’s mouth shut is the “twist” that makes this equation so clever. Call it “The Z Factor”— the Zipping of the Lip.

Zipping one’s lips is far easier said than done.  How many times have you been tempted lash out with a scathing retort to a colleague’s thoughtless comment? In these cases, you need to take the high road, as Sharlyn Lauby reminds us over at The HR Bartender. Taking the high road requires emotional control, and Sharlyn highlights some important reasons to do so. She also emphasizes that not speaking up when you observe something illegal, immoral or unethical amounts to tacit approval.

Beyond ethical and legal situations that compel you to speak, there are many other situations that may warrant silence. Maybe it’s not an emotional outburst that you’re stifling, but rather you’ve witnessed a breach in work etiquette or a show of poor judgment. When these dilemmas present themselves, you’re faced with an internal dialog of “should I say something or not?”  Here are some questions you can ask yourself to determine if (or perhaps when) you should speak up:

What’s my intention in speaking up?  Being clear on your intent can help you determine if it’s misguided or not.  Perhaps you intend to “help” but it’s possible that speaking up will only make matters worse. If you aren’t in a position to fix or change what you’re addressing, it may not be helpful to broach the subject.

Is the timing right? Timing is key—sometimes it’s best to strike while the iron is hot, so that the details are fresh.  However, you also need to consider the recipient’s frame of mind and your location.  If it’s an emotionally charged situation, it’s best to allow for a cool-down period and a private place for conversation.

Is this my issue to own? Sometimes we insert ourselves where we have no business being.  This is particularly true in the workplace. There’s a fine line between being a good friend and an intrusive (yet well-meaning) colleague. Leave performance discussions to the person’s supervisor.

What are the consequences? Think through the potential consequences, both positive and negative.  How might this hurt the person? How might it help them? Sometimes the consequences may be severe, but in your heart you think it’s best to speak up. If you’ve thought through the issues, at least you’ll be prepared no matter what the outcome.

Awareness of the Z Factor is a key relational skill for business success. Moreover, it’s been shown to increase your health— allowing you to avoid the dreaded Foot-in-Mouth disease.  So, next time you’re tempted to sound off, run through a mental checklist and be sure it’s in the best interest of all parties involved before you get involved.

Photo credit: © Nikola Bilic

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin W. Grossman September 2, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Isn’t that what these kids today say? Great post, Jennifer. Thanks for the shout out!

Jennifer September 2, 2010 at 1:42 pm


What a fantastic quote! And SO completely true in this age of Confessional Communication.

Thanks for being my muse on this one.

Susan Mazza September 2, 2010 at 5:42 pm

Great line and equation Jennifer (and Kevin and Albert)! And I just love the picture. Another reason to zip it is so we can actually listen!!

Len Weibel September 3, 2010 at 5:59 am

God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. Think about it Right on Jennifer et al.

Jennifer September 3, 2010 at 7:12 am

Susan and Len,

It’s great that you added “listening” into this equation– it’s another very important factor in human relations. I wonder, what would Einstein make of our dissection of his quote? We seem to be finding many interpretations….

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